The air is drenched with odors of chlorine and perspiration, seasoned with a tang of Sharpie marker. One such marker shuffles across the back of a cherub-faced girl two bleacher rows below me. The girl’s mother watches the scoreboard clock with one eye while minding her own handiwork with the other. When she’s finished, she purses her lips and blows on her daughter’s back to dry the ink. From my seat in the bleachers, I can see what she’s written. The words “Eat My Bubbles” are written between the straps of the girl’s swimsuit. Half a dozen hand drawn bubbles surround the taunt. She about-faces and climbs the stairs, cherub cheeks glowing, eyes determined. She looks to be nine or ten years old. She wears a performance swimsuit that cost her parents upwards of three hundred dollars.
I should know. My boy Jesse wears a suit of the same brand. The boy version uses less than half the material, but still runs two hundred plus. Suits like these––tech suits they’re called––are only effective for three or four competitions. After that, chlorine and friction take a toll, and they start losing repellency. Following this meet, Jesse’s current suit will have to be retired, or at least relegated to practice duty, and his father and I will have to scratch up funds for a replacement before the next big meet. The money won’t be there; I already know it won’t. It’ll have to go on a credit card, just like the hundreds a month in private lesson fees and the goggles he manages to burn through twice a month.
We try not to worry about all the money we spend on our son’s swimming. We tell ourselves it’s an investment in his future. He’s good––one of the fastest in the state for his age––and he has a shot at a college scholarship one day. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
“A little credit card debt is nothing if it helps our boy swim into a ride at Stanford,” my husband Chuck likes to say.
Today is the regional champs meet, short course version. Hundreds of swimmers are competing this weekend, all of them standouts on their teams, all among the fastest in their respective states. Of all those hundreds of swimmers, how many have parents with Stanford dreams? I’m certain Chuck and I aren’t the only ones.
In my clammy palms, I clutch a green Gatorade sports bottle, half full of water that used to be cold, but now is tepid. It’s one of Jesse’s. He has five others just like it, all monogrammed with his own blocky handwriting in that ubiquitous Sharpie ink. I’ve often thought the Sharpie marker company is missing out on an obvious marketing opportunity by failing to highlight all the ways their flagship product is used in competitive swimming––the labeling of equipment, the forearm grids the kids draw to remind themselves of race numbers and lane assignments, the drawing of cartoon bubbles upon young swimmers’ backs. Imagine what it would do for Sharpie sales nation wide if they picked up Katie Ledecky as a spokesperson. “Sharpie is the only brand marker I trust to bring home the gold,” she could say in the commercial.
“One more heat, then he’s up,” Chuck says. There’s a tremor in his voice. He’s anxious. We both are. I shift side to side on the hard metal bleacher, trying to assuage the hot pin feeling on my legs and butt. I take a shot of warm water from the Gatorade bottle. It’s a nervous tick of mine––sipping water. It’s healthier than chewing my cuticles, but it doesn’t do my poor bladder any favors. If I drink much more, I’ll end up in the bathroom during Jesse’s race.
I spot him behind a smattering of adolescent bodies at lane six––my Jesse––one of a few eleven-year-olds in a field of twelve-year-olds. Still, he is taller than all but two of them, and more graceful, older somehow in a way that defies chronology. Midnight goggles hug his silicone-capped forehead. Despite the distance between us, I can read his eyes, just as though he were right next to me. He is calm. A mom sees these things.
He wasn’t always this relaxed before his races. His first race at the age of eight started a bit rocky. I remember him perched atop the starting block, the way his little body shook from the nerves. I wanted so badly to leap from the stands, to go to him, hug him close, and tell him he is precious to me, always and no matter what––that he doesn’t need to swim this race if he doesn’t want to. I may have done it too, if I’d had time, but the starting buzzer went off before I could budge, and my boy pitched forward into the water at such a lousy angle, the impact yanked his goggles down to his neck. He became so disoriented that for several seconds, he forgot to swim. He fiddled with his disobedient goggles a moment before he noticed the receding wake of seven other swimmers, already ten yards into their fifty yard freestyle. He gave up on the goggles in time to start his stroke before the others reached mid pool. Then instinct took over.
“My God, look at him go!” Chuck had said, his voice rising like a song, eyes bright with paternal pride.
Even as an eight year old, Jesse’s legs created an impressive rooster tail. He was fast, so fast he managed to catch and pass all but one of the boys before the race was done. Afterward, he was too upset over his failed goggles and the chlorine sting in his eyes to appreciate his accomplishment.
That night at bed time, I hugged him close and told him he was precious to me, always and matter what––that he didn’t need to keep swimming if he didn’t want to.
But he did keep swimming. That was three years and twelve inches ago. Since then, our Jesse’s swimming has come to dominate our evenings and weekends, as well as some of our early mornings. I’ve heard people complain about television’s obsession with showing Michael Phelps’s mother cheering in the stands during his Olympic races. Let me tell you––that dear woman deserves all the acclaim she’s received and more for the time she put into her kid’s career.
The meet announcer’s monotone voice booms over the PA, “This is final call, heat seven, boys eleven and twelve two hundred IM.”
“He’s up!” pipes Chuck.
I raise the Gatorade bottle. Swallow. The water tastes of plastic, makes my nervous stomach churn. I sip again.
“Two eighteen, two eighteen, two eighteen,” Chuck mutters.
Two minutes, eighteen seconds. That’s the time Jesse is aiming for, and from here, I can see his lips mimic his father’s––”Two eighteen, two eighteen,” he’s whispering to himself, over and over.
The race is the two hundred IM. If he touches the wall under two minutes, eighteen point nine zero seconds, he qualifies for a trip to Denver this Summer, where he’ll face off against some of the country’s elite young swimmers. Jesse will be twelve by then, meaning he has to hit twelve year old time standards now––six months in advance––in order to qualify. It’s a couple seconds faster than his previous best, much faster than most eleven year old boys are capable of swimming, but those are the breaks when your birthday doesn’t cooperate with USA Swimming’s meet schedule.
“Remember what we promised him, if he makes this,” Chuck says.
“I remember,” I say with a roll of my eyes.
The promise was made months ago, before short course season had even started. Before we thought he may actually do this. Chuck told him if he qualified for Denver, we’d get him an iPhone. Promises are easy to make when they are only theoretical.
The last two swimmers of heat six touch wall. Jesse lowers his goggles, hops on the balls of his feet. His tinted gaze lands on the ceiling. His lips still move, but he’s no longer speaking numbers; he’s praying. A couple months ago, after he’d crushed finals at another meet, I took him out for ice cream, and he told me he’d swam so well because he called on the power of Poseidon, god of the oceans to help him. He’d been reading the Percy Jackson book series at the time; that’s where he got the idea. Ever since then, I’ve noticed him doing the same thing before races––raising his head, beseeching Poseidon. I’ve never told Chuck about it. He’d probably say it’s stupid, and maybe it is. But the boy is only eleven. He has a few years before he needs to give up stupid things.
“…Swimmers to your blocks, Madam Referee,” the disinterested announcer drones.
Jesse climbs number six. He looks so grown standing on that block.
“All right, Jesse!” chants one of his teammates.
The team’s coach is a grizzled fifty-something with Popeye arms who goes by the singular name Biz––a clever abbreviation of his last name, Bisby. He likes to tag his nickname wherever he can, adding his personality to the swim program. He even puts it on the team t-shirts. This year’s shirts say “Takin Care of Biz’ness!” across the back. I’m sure he has a first name as well, but I’ve never heard anybody use it. Biz rises from his poolside seat and crows, “All right, Jesse! Show those twelves how we do!”
Madam Referee’s voice comes on like a machine: “Take. Your. Marks.”
The swimmers bend. This moment bites my nerves beyond all others––the elongated moment before the buzzer sounds. I sometimes wonder how many prayers Jesse must utter to Poseidon in this enduring moment.
I need to pee. No matter. I can hold it for two minutes and eighteen seconds.
The buzzer cuts the air like a buzzsaw. Jesse is the last swimmer to hit water.
“Ooh, rough start!” Chuck says, wincing.
“It’s fine,” I say. “It’s a long race.”
And it is a long race, for the swimmers anyway. Two plus minutes of driving their bodies to do a most unnatural thing––to push against the weight of thousands of pounds of water. To defy the human body’s natural inclination to sink.
Jesse pulls into his butterfly stroke nearly fifteen yards down pool. By now, he’s middle of the pack, and he looks strong. This is his strategy in an IM. Keep it close, but don’t burn yourself up. Keep an eye on the front runners. As long as you’re within a body length when you hit the last fifty, you can chase them down. You can catch them.
“He can catch them on the free,” Chuck murmurs, as if reading my thoughts. And Jesse just might. He often does.
He is fourth as he approaches the end of his first fifty. The swimmers in lanes five and three are within reach. Lane four is way out in front, already beginning his backstroke. It’s okay. Jesse’s not chasing swimmers today, not really. He’s chasing digits––two minutes, eighteen seconds––those magic digits he’ll cash in for a ticket to Denver.
The turn from butterfly to backstroke is a tricky one and has often been a weakness, but not today. He’s been working on this. He pulls off a seamless transition and emerges in third place, his long arms becoming sleek pinwheels, his legs churning, pushing. Seeing this, Coach Biz lets out a holy roar that rises above the crowd like the Hallelujah cry of a church choir.
One of the tricks to a good backstroke is to kick hard enough to keep yourself high in the water, reducing drag. Most kids fail to do this and tend to look like they’re wrestling their own bodies as they scoot backwards against a massive wall of water. It’s difficult to keep kicking hard after swimming two lengths of butterfly at top speed, but these boys manage it well. You don’t make it to a race like this if you don’t know how to kick hard.
I like watching Jesse’s backstroke because I can see his face as he swims. His face tells his story, and a mom can always read her child’s story. By his face, I know if he’s confident or worried. I can tell if he’s feeling strong or if he’s in pain. I see his face now, and it is beautiful. My Jesse is beautiful. His brow is scrunched above his goggles, his lower lip extended in a forced underbite. I know the look well; I’ve seen it many times before. Every child has his or her own version. It is the look of forgetting––forgetting the world, forgetting time. It’s the look that precedes an expression of bewilderment when a parent interrupts a child who’s become lost in his own imagination.
Jesse was two years old the first time I saw this look on his face. He used to get into my purse when he was little. Drove me crazy. His favorite mischief was to pull out my wallet and methodically extract everything inside––my license, Jamba Juice punch card, credit cards. The credit cards nested tightly in their sleeves and were always difficult for his stubby fingers to remove. But Jesse never became frustrated, never threw a tantrum, as many two year olds are prone to do. He would just pick and tug at those cards until each one was liberated from its faux leather prison. And the look on his face as he performed this task was identical to the one he has now––a look of quiet concentration. A look of immersion.
He is approaching the far end of the pool, and for a panicked moment, I think he’s forgotten it’s time to flip. A vision flashes in my mind, of my Jesse crashing into the wall at full speed, smacking his head, and tears––the tears that will come like a storm tonight. But it doesn’t happen. He flips, the motion both sudden and smooth, and now he is a mere body length behind the leader.
Teammates explode into cheers. Chuck jumps from the bleachers and bellows. I stay seated, my gaze remaining on my boy’s expression, which hasn’t changed at all. He’s still focused, abandoned to his task. He’s an eleven year old racing older boys, and he’s so lost in his own lane six world, he doesn’t realize how strange and unlikely this all is.
He is lost in his own lane six world, and my heart is swollen to the point of unraveling. It’s too much––too much excitement, too much wonder and surprise, too soon. I’m not ready for this.
Tears creep out from a secret corner of my mind, spilling over, splashing down on my jeans, and I don’t know if these are tears brought on by happiness or sorrow. I suppose it’s both.
“He’s only eleven,” I say aloud. Nobody can hear me through the frantic cries of Keep Going!, Push!, Kick! Kick! Kick!.
I rise. Jesse’s into the third leg now––breaststroke. I missed his recent turn, but it must have been good, because he hasn’t lagged. I glance at the scoreboard, at its speeding numbers. I’ve never been quick with math, and I’m too distracted to calculate the seconds in my head, but I don’t need to. Chuck’s already done it for me. I can tell by the rapturous grin on his cheeks, the way he’s stamping his feet hard enough to rattle the metal bleachers. Our boy is on target. Barring any major mistakes, he’ll go to Denver.
“Hang on, kiddo; hang on! Don’t let em get away from you!” Chuck shouts.
My vision is warped from tears, but I can tell a couple racers have caught and passed Jesse. Pure breaststrokers. There’s always at least a couple in every IM. Doesn’t matter. He’ll make up for it with his free, and anyway, he’s chasing seconds, not swimmers. And even that doesn’t matter because none of this can be real. This whole thing––the shouting parents in the stands, the superhuman kids in their two hundred dollar racing suits, this damp, smelly pool building––it must all be a dream.
Any moment now, I’ll awake in my old rocking chair with a sore neck and a tingle in my arm, having nodded off while rocking my little boy to sleep. Later, I’ll catch him rummaging through my purse, scattering the innards of my wallet all over the floor, but I won’t become angry with him. Instead, I’ll admire his staunch determination, the absorbed expression on his sweet face, and I’ll appreciate the moment.
I will appreciate all the moments through all the years so I’ll never have to feel like I’ve missed a thing. But I wonder if that’s even possible. Of all the mothers who have lived, has there ever been one who hasn’t worried she’s failed to treasure each priceless moment with her child? Who among us has not felt the cold hand of time, stealing her dear heart away?
Coach Biz, along with half a dozen kids from the team, are chanting the the breaststroke cheer––”Go…Go!…Go!” they yell in time with Jesse’s kicks. I hate that cheer. It always seems slow and out of rhythm. And that’s exactly how I feel just now––out of rhythm, slow––the only parent in this whole damned building who feels like this is all too fast.
Jesse pushes into the final fifty. He’s fourth in heat now. A glance at the board tells me the time is one forty six and change. He could practically take a nap in the middle of the pool and still make his time. Chuck looks so excited, I think he might pee his pants.
I swipe my eyes with the sleeve of my “Takin Care of Biz’ness!” shirt. “He’s only eleven,” I say again. Again, nobody hears me.
Every third stroke, Jesse turns his head and gulps air. Every sixth, his face turns toward me. I wonder if he sees me up here. I wonder if there is room in his own lane six world––beyond the clamor of organic cogs and gears that make him capable of performing miracles in the water, beyond dreams of cross-country flights and iPhones, beyond ritualistic prayers to a mythic god––for him simply to be an eleven year old boy. For me to be his mom a little while longer.
Jesse flip turns. Chuck says, “Hope you’re ready to go to Colorado.”
Of course I’m not.
Thirteen seconds later, the race is over. Jesse touches wall at two eighteen, point eight five seconds. If he were five tenths slower, Denver wouldn’t be happening.
Chuck puts an arm around me and grips my shoulder. Now he’s crying, too. I turn to him and place my head on his chest, staining his “Takin Care of Biz’ness!” shirt with makeup and mucus. It’s hot in here. We’re both sweaty, but I don’t care right now.
Our son is making his way back to the team benches and looks ready to combust. He gives a teammate knuckles, then looks up at us and holds a hand in front of him, taps an imaginary phone screen with the other.
“You okay?” Chuck says. He squeezes me tightly and trades glances at me with glances at Jessie
“I’m fine,” I say. “But don’t squeeze too hard. I really need to pee.”
“Me too,” he chuckles.
“Think there’s any way we can get out of the iPhone thing?”
“You think he’s not ready?”
I breathe deeply; the airborne chlorine runs through my blood, soaks into my bones. I say, “Oh, he’s probably ready. But I’m not.”